The Priority of Questions: Ed Straker (by Guina)

Two Characters – Two Writers – Two Different POVs – Two Stories
Yuletide New Year’s Resolution 2011 gifted to Lightcudder

One Dialogue by Lightcudder and Guina
This Point of View by Guina  © December 2010

“I’m sorry, sir,” the voice of the court clerk threaded through the receiver. “It’s because of a technicality. You married on US American soil, given that the whole ceremony was held at your embassy. Full UK family law applies only to betrothals within England and Wales. Your former wife had a very good lawyer, who knew precisely how to present this and whom to. Judge Kelbaugh’s known for his – if I may say so – somewhat parochial views.”

Straker rubbed his eyes, then ran a tired hand across his early morning stubble back to his neck to stretch some of the lassitude out of his thin frame. It had taken hold of him after John’s death and did not seem to let up.

“But I thought she’d have to ask me about a name change,” he argued.

“Not with a court legally changing that name,” the other explained patiently. “You weren’t even contacted as our family laws don’t apply in your case. So while you’re on the birth certificate as the father, the name on his death certificate is the changed surname, his stepfather’s name.”

“Is there anything I can do?” he was far too close to tears for comfort. Breathing in deeply did not help much either. How could she take that from him, that last small connection with his son, the name? When had all that hate been engendered? And nourished?

“You can appeal to the court, make an official complaint,” the clerk answered. “Are you sure you want to create that much disruption, with your son just dead? It’ll be hard going for you, and you’ll need an excellent lawyer. It’ll be a lengthy process too, there’s no way your son’s name will be changed back within a few days. This will take a year or more.”

“Thank you, Mr. Dicton,” Straker gazed out into the garden, filled with vegetables and flowers, stretching up into the bright sun, ripening. “Thank you for the trouble. I’ll think this over.”

He could see the small bed of carrots, parsley and tomatoes John had planted and taken care of every time he had been there. He would have to break up the bed and level it. Maybe plant a tree there. Apples.

Not just now though. Not now.

***

A shower and a shave took care of his outward appearance, though they did nothing to refresh him. Weary to the bones he sat down at the kitchen table, turning his back on the large windows surveying the garden, quite on purpose.

He was not hungry. A coffee sufficed, not even his usual large bowl of latte, replete with real cream and cane sugar. He had bought freeze-dried the last time, quicker and less of an effort. He did not feel much like efforts these days, if he made it through a full shift he was so exhausted that he barely managed to drive himself home in one piece. On some of the past evenings he unlocked the empty, dark house and thought it would have been better not to.

And now it turned out Mary had obliterated him entirely. John would be buried as Rutland, nothing to tell anyone that there once had been a lively, beautiful boy with bright blue eyes and blonde hair whose father he had been.

Drinking deeply from his cup, he opened the newspaper. Choked. Small but still quite prominent on the first page.

 

Unbidden and unwanted tears were spilling down his cheeks, affording him no relief. None at all. Heaving he tried to pull himself together and failed, like every morning the past few days, like most nights as well. Mary was right. He had killed his own son. He had let John down. Now his beautiful son was dead. And he was alive.

Half an hour later and shivering inspite of the hot sun already burning down he got into his car and to the studio as if on remote control, not remembering anything of the drive. He brushed past Ms. Ealand, not even looking at her, spoke into the voice identification and leaned back, tired already. Another pointless day in the grinder.

***

Keeping track of time was a struggle these days, Straker found. When the office door opened and Alec Freeman entered, he wondered for a split-second whether it was already late enough for lunch. His friend had started trying to drag him to the cafeteria for a couple of days in a row now. It was difficult getting him to understand that he was not hungry. He did not say he was way too nauseous to eat.

“Alec?” he asked, puzzled, then felt himself blanch, and going ice-cold seeing the rolled newspaper in Freeman’s hand. Like a weapon Alec stabbed it at him, then put it down right in front of him, over the reports he had spread out on the desk.

“Ed. Is it true? John?”

Of course. Alec would have realized who that was. Few did, he had hoped that this name change at least would spare him this sort of thing.

“Yes,” he agreed. Pulling himself together with a supreme effort, he folded the newspaper and put it aside.

The last thing he wanted to do was talk about John with Alec. With his best and oldest friend, with the man he accused of his son’s death in the darkest hours of the night, knowing full well that this was unjust and foul. That, if he was honest, he was the one to blame, he alone.

If only you’d go away. Simply go.

“For God’s sake. what happened?” Alec asked, as tenacious as a bullterrier, as tenacious as he always was.

“Car accident. He died. That’s … all.” Straker stated, opening another folder in the hope that Alec would finally get the message and leave him be.

When the other just stood there, glaring at him and waiting, he put out his hand to call Ford inside, anything to get Alec off his back. The older man grasped his wrist in a vice-like grip, immobilizing it against the heavy slab of his desk. Quite detached, Straker noted that he was not even able to generate anger.

“Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare cut me out like that. I have the right to know.” Alec growled. “Damn it Ed, I need to know. What the hell did I do? It was my fault wasn’t it?”

Yes, he wanted to scream. Yes! It was your goddamn fault, you re-routed that fucking transporter which would have been on time!

Ah, but that was the easy way out, wasn’t it? Shabby and underhanded and trying to lighten his own guilt which was impossible to deny. Whatever infinitesimal fault in all this was Alec’s, he could have saved his friend from committing it with one single word. And he had not said it. It was time to end this before he cracked.

“You’re exceeding your privileges, Colonel. Yes, my son is dead. My son is dead. How I deal with that is up to me. Right now I want to deal with it in privacy,” he said and pleaded at last. “Alec … go! Please.”

He could not bear looking at the other. Again he buried his head in the report, scanning the same page now the sixth time, still not taking in a single word.

Please, just leave the room, please.

“No. I won’t,” Freeman all but bellowed. “We need to talk. Why couldn’t you trust me enough to tell me?”

Because then I’d also have to explain what that transporter carried. Because then you would shoulder guilt which is not yours. Because then our friendship would come under a strain I don’t know how to solve. Because I don’t want to lose you as well, Alec.

Straker flinched when his friend brought his fist down on the desk with a vengeance, then turned to stalk the office angrily.

“I ‘m not going. You can sit there behind that desk. you can pretend that you don’t care, cold and unemotional, but I know better,” Alec stated. “Dammit Ed. Talk to me. Please.”

“What do you want to hear? That I abused my power? Yes! I did! I used SHADO personnel and a SHADO transporter to get something here fast,” he finally snapped. “It didn’t work out as I thought. Now John is dead. And I have to live with that fact.”

Saying it out loud exhausted him immeasurably. He looked up at Alec, who was standing in front of his desk, his face grey and drawn.

“Oh God Ed, it was my fault then,” Alec said. “John is dead and its all my fault.”

“No. … No it isn’t. … Remember? It’s a question of priorities,” Straker answered. “You did what you had to do, what your job is. I misused that transporter, you are not responsible for employing it as it should have been. No, Alec. You are not at fault.”

He felt miserable to the core watching his friend tasting all that guilt. As he had foreseen Alec was ready to embrace it, even though he had not been the one responsible.

“Ed, I had no idea. I wondered at the time why it had taken off early. Dear God, John would be alive now if I had only asked you,” Alec’s voice broke. “How can you bear to even look to me?”

He felt himself answering sharper than he wanted, much sharper. The facade of cool detachment the only thing now which kept him from breaking down right there in his office.

“Cut it! … Please. You aren’t responsible. I am,” he assured the other, desperately trying to reason with him, to present a logical chain of arguments. “I didn’t tell you. Not when he had the accident. Not when you redirected that plane to Ireland.” He dropped his eyes and his voice. “You and I both know that I had no business using it. It would have been a case of court martial for both of us, else, given that renegade alien. No, Alec. These things happen.”

The older man stopped right before his desk, shaking his head.

“That’s rubbish!” Alec yelled straight into his face, leaning over the desk. “These things don’t just ‘happen’. I am to blame. We both know it. You’re just trying to make things easier for me.” Freeman started pacing again. “As for a Court Martial? No way and you know that as well.”

Straker heaved himself upright with some difficulty, shrugged into his jacket and walked around the perspex desk.

Come friend, let’s settle this in fresh air. Where I am not constantly reminded of every detail of this.

“Let’s go for a walk, Alec. Somewhere more private.”

“More private than here? Why?” Alec balked and Straker finally was able to tell how afraid the older man was. “What are you hiding from me? Or is it that you simply want me out of here?”

“Do I have to pull rank on you so you go for a walk with me?”

The silence was unrelieved. Not mere stubbornness, though this was not beyond Freeman, no, the fear in the other was palpable. And he had to address it. If anything, he could not let it take hold and fester, the guilt was his, his alone. Alec had to accept that.

“I’m going into the park. You can either come along, or not. Have it as you will.” Straker shrugged and started towards the door, trusting Alec to follow. “I need some fresh air.”

“As long as you talk. As long as you tell me what happened,” Alec said and followed as if pulled on a string. “I need to know the truth. Promise me that much.”

With Freeman in tow Straker slowly made it away from the studio buildings into the wide, fenced-in park that surrounded the premises. Hands folded in the small of his back, he walked through the sweltering heat, not even noticing it. Inspite of the jacket closed up high, and a thick turtleneck sweater underneath he still was shivering every now and then, of a cold which no amount of forceful August sun could burn away.

At last he looked up and turned towards his friend who had been following in silence.

“John liked the park,” he explained. “We were horsing around with the studio’s old fire engine on that day.”

“When he last visited? Was that … ?”

“Yes. It was,” Straker answered, another shiver running through him, another he was unable to check.

“And you took him home. And then?” Alec prompted in a gentle tone. “You told me you would be back at six. I wondered where you had got to.”

“We … I was late. Half an hour,” he said, then could not help smiling, remembering their last conversation. “John wanted to show me the boat he had built. Mary and … Rutland wanted to go out with him. So I left before he was downstairs again.” Straker swallowed, then forced himself to continue. “He ran after me, straight into the road, straight into a car. Bad head injuries, broken ribs, piercing vital organs.”

Freeman stopped and rocked back on his heels, opened his jacket and slipped out of it, sweat forming on his face. He canted his head, unsure how to go on.

“But he’s young, he’s, he was healthy,” he finally said. “Young kids can survive some pretty bad accidents. What happened? What did that transporter have to do with it?”

“They were serious injuries, Alec,” Straker almost whispered. “And John is… John was allergic to nearly all antibiotics. He was building a raging infection. The only drug potentially … the only antibiotic he might have been tolerant of was a new American one.”

He watched his friend grow completely still, blanching inspite of the heat, and fumbling for words.

I’m so sorry, he thought, I’m so utterly sorry it has to be like this. And still you are not to blame. By every reason there is, by every logic, you are not to blame, and I will learn to see it like so, even at the dead of night. Even then, my friend.

“Oh god, that was what it was carrying. And I delayed it. Ed,” Freeman said, swallowing dry more than once.

“Loads of ‘ifs’, loads of ‘maybes’. Maybe that drug would have helped. If he had tolerated it. Maybe it would have been time enough, maybe not,” Straker countered. “No one, Alec, no one knows. Once we had a UFO alarm, that was that.” He tried to catch Freeman’s attention, but the other man had turned away, gazing out across the vast lawn shimmering with heat flurries. “You did not know because I chose to not tell you. I am responsible.”

Freeman whipped around, startling him with his violent reaction. Please, stop arguing. Stop trying to get me to agree. Just stop all that.

“Fucking hell, Ed. You did everything you could possibly do to save your son. Your son. And I stopped him getting that drug in time,” Alec said, rubbing it in. “I’m responsible. Not you. An alien. Shit! We didn’t even get him alive. John died, because I was so keen to get that alien. How can you ever forgive me? How can I ever forgive myself?”

“Stop it! That’s why I didn’t want to open this can of worms!” he snapped, losing his patience again. “I knew that you’d have reverted your order. Alec, do you hear me? I knew that! That’s why I kept quiet. It was my decision. Mine alone. I condemned my son to death, and goddammit, I know that as well. …” He felt bone-tired all of a sudden. As if the last bit of stamina had been used up and it was sheer willpower which kept him upright. “Will you now… would you please stop it now? I can’t … I just want to get over this. Just leave me be. In a couple of months… just leave it alone. Please?”

Somehow he managed to look up and into Freeman’s eyes, willing the other to let go at last and leave him alone, to deal with what happened, to heal at his own pace.

“Ed, … please … i can’t leave it like this,” Freeman said. “I can’t let you shut everyone out. Not now…”

What do you want me to say, my friend, he idly wondered. That I do not function just the same way? That I need to come to grips with this on my own first?

And as the silence lengthened he became aware again of the fear in Alec Freeman, a fear he finally was able to field as he should have right away, and as if to prove him, the older man started to blurt it out, unrefined, uncontrolled, raw as it was.

“Is that your answer? Silence? Try to ignore it in the hope it will go away? You can’t hide away from this!” Freeman said, hands gesticulating in abrupt, wide arcs of despair. “It’s there. It will always be there, and though you say you were responsible, we know that isn’t the whole truth. John is dead, and I bear some responsibility for his death. You have to deal with that fact as well. Can you? Can you work with the man who helped to kill your son? I need to know.”

The pain was almost as biting as his own, he recognized then. There was only one answer. Without saying anything Straker moved into his friend and embraced him. With all the strength he still had, and with all the fervour, pressing his face into the side of the other’s neck, pulling him towards himself with all the warmth he still had up inside.

“I am so so very sorry. I wish…” Alec’s words petered out, despair thick all over them.

“Let it be, Alec. Please. Listen to me for once, please.”

He straightened again, and looked at the other, relieved when Freeman nodded at last.

“Let’s go back,” Straker said, then glanced around the park with conscious, alert eyes. “He was so happy here …”

***

A quarter to ten. He stared at the clock on the kitchen wall, and sipped again from his lukewarm coffee. He had been staring at that clock for the past hour, having memorized the precise schedule of the funeral service just now going on at the Slough cemetery. He had called the priest, and received a timetable. Right now they were holding the graveside service.

It was time.

Straker got up, put his coffee mug into the sink and palmed his car keys. By the time he was in Slough, there would be no one there. Except Alec, who had promised to meet with him at the chapel at half past ten.

It already was hot outside, the sun burning down without mercy. The whole of England in the grip of an almost brutal heatwave. He got into the Saab quickly, turned up the air-conditioning, and threaded out onto the county road with oblivious expertise.

The uniform did not fit well anymore, but he knew that John would have wanted him to wear it. He had always been so proud that his father had been a full-bird colonel and loved to wear the very uniform hat in play which was now resting at his side on the passenger seat.

He pulled into the clean, gravelled parking lot outside of the cemetery, right beside the only other car, Alec’s Rover. At least they had calculated correctly, he would not be meeting Mary. Thank God. He did not think he would have the strength to deal with her just now.

The heat slammed into him with a vengeance the moment he got out of the car. Straker carefully donned the cap, then pulled the uniform as straight as possible. It was hanging on his frame as if too large. With slow and hesitant steps he made for the iron gate leading off to the graveyard, past the chapel itself, relieved when the shadowy figure of Freeman moved into the path from where he had been leaning against the cool stone wall. Also wearing uniform. He nodded a greeting at him.

“I hope you didn’t have to wait too long,” he said in a low, quiet tone. “How long have you been here?”

Side by side both men walked towards the back of the cemetery.

“Since nine,” Alec answered, keeping his gaze straight ahead. He would not have needed to do that, Straker did not look at him.

They were almost at the small grave, when he spoke again.

“Thank you.”

Author’s Notes:

There are several ideas meshed into that story.

Firstly, it deals with a very intriguing question: how could Straker and Freeman hold onto a working, deep friendship after the incidents of “A Question of Priority”? Because try as anyone might, a father thwarted in rescuing his son would always attribute some guilt to the person who sabotaged the rescue. How could Straker deal with this in such a positive manner for Alec? To me there is only a layered, differentiated reaction possible and stay in character of Ed Straker: he will be cool and detached on the surface, to stay functional, very much mourning and feeling an enormous guilt deep inside, he will be angry and accusatory to Alec also deep inside, and he will know all the while that this is very much wrong. Hence he will take great care not to show any of his resentments to his best friend. Instead he will right away try to overcome them, to not lose Alec as well.

Secondly, while during the events themselves Straker manages to keep things from Alec, that would not hold up for long. Freeman very clearly was suspicious of what had happened, and anything – be it now, as we did it, a small news article, or be it a detailed report from the transporter captain – might tip Freeman off. What would happen then? How would Alec confront Straker? What would be his feelings for having ordered the plane delayed?

Thirdly, there is this absolutely phantastic scene, practically the very best acting of the whole series, where Straker learns of and acknowledges that John is not anymore John Straker, he is John Rutland. Such a surname change is not easy in the UK and it is not taken lightly. This is speaking loud and clear about some facets of Straker’s ex-wife, which are absolutely not nice. As I discovered when researching surname changes (without prior knowledge of the father) Straker’s military and expatriate status may have been used to do this in a pretty sneaky manner, depending on the abilities of Mary’s attorneys. If it happened as researched as being one of very few possibilities, it would have been legal and not easily undone. I wondered how Straker would take this, after everything else which happened to him.

Almost there, the idea to write the conversation between Freeman and Straker came to Louise and me while chatting. We wondered what the outcome of enacting this conversation via a chat would be, if either of us slipped into the character of one of them and spoke as he. Add to that, that we started off at the set premise, but there was no “script”, this was live and neither of us knew what the other would say next. So, the dialogue is the joint result of both of us actually having that conversation, and I must say – I LOVE the result!

Lastly, the idea of doing two stories came with the fact that each of us held a different POV, Louise that of Alec, and I that of Ed. So we wrote two stories, with two POVs, of two characters.

As with all our UFO stories it is transposed to the current day, with general technology updated, but none of the other facts altered in any way. This story takes place after A Question of Priority.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the authors of this story. The authors are in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any previously copyrighted material. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

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